“I don’t know if haunted is the right word,” said movie producer Ed Richardson. “I have never gotten this story out of my head since I was a kid.”
Richardson, 48, owner of Atlanta production facility R&R Productions Worldwide, is talking about that deeply disturbing Flannery O’Connor short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find.”
The way Richardson describes it, he’s been seeing a Flannery O’Connor movie inside his head since he was a grade-schooler in north Louisiana.
This summer, with the help of a notable screenwriter and a shooting schedule full of Georgia locations, he plans to make that dream a reality.
The title story from the collection, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” concerns an unlucky family urged into an ill-fated car trip by a purse-lipped, self-important grandmother. They blunder into bad fortune in the Georgia woods when a gang of ne’er-do-wells led by a character called The Misfit brings the story — and the gabby grandmother — to a calamitous end.
Of the old lady, The Misfit says, “She would have been a good woman … if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”
Hidden under this grotesquerie is a story about grace, but much of O’Connor’s audience had a hard time finding it.
“I am mighty tired of reading reviews that call ‘A Good Man’ brutal and sarcastic,” O’Connor wrote to Betty Hester of Atlanta, one of her most faithful correspondents. “The stories are hard but they are hard because there is nothing harder or less sentimental than Christian realism … when I see these stories described as horror stories I am always amused because the reviewer always has hold of the wrong horror.”
To O’Connor, the “right” horror is the horror of a fallen world. Her characters are driven, sometimes through cartoonish violence, to confront their distance from God. “Grace changes us and the change is painful,” she wrote.
But there, right there, is the challenge for the movie-maker: to tread that thin line between the black comedy and the spiritual in O’Connor’s work.
Benedict Fitzgerald has done it before. The script-writer for this project, he also wrote the script for 1979’s “Wise Blood,” the John Huston film based on O’Connor’s first novel. He also wrote the script for “The Passion of the Christ,” which he calls the highest-grossing independent film of all time.
Fitzgerald bears the distinction of a previous relationship with O’Connor: She was his babysitter. He is the son of Sally and Robert Fitzgerald, who rented O’Connor a room over their garage in Ridgefield, Conn., for a year and a half while she wrote “Wise Blood.” Sally Fitzgerald subsequently collected O’Connor’s letters for the book “The Habit of Being” and worked for more than a decade on a biography of O’Connor that was still unfinished when Fitzgerald died in 2000. (Her papers, like O’Connor’s papers, are at Emory University.)
“Ben” Fitzgerald is currently in Italy on another writing project and unavailable for comment.
Richardson came to this project by a circuitous route, first working as a logistics manager for a fiberglass insulation company, then interning at Turner Broadcasting and becoming a writer/producer there. He has produced feature films and documentaries before, but this will be a step up.
The crew will shoot in Georgia, and Richardson holds out the possibility of filming at Andalusia, the Milledgeville dairy farm where O’Connor lived for the last 14 years of her life until she died of complications from lupus in 1964.
The farm has become a house museum dedicated to O’Connor, and assistant director April Moon Carlson said it’s easy to see images from O’Connor’s fiction in the surrounding landscape, the mulberry trees, the equipment shed.
A movie based on “The Displaced Person,” another, equally morbid O’Connor short story, was filmed at Andalusia back in 1975, said Carlson.
“Grotesque, brutal, hard and hopeless are ways her work is described,” said Richardson, “but the violence wasn’t violence for the sake of violence. She put her characters in a position to accept their moment of grace.”
Richardson, who can’t yet reveal the cast or budget for the film, is co-producing with David Zander (“Spring Breakers”) and Mike Sears.
He said part of the movie’s charm will be its scare tactics. “Not unlike ‘Deliverance,’ not unlike ‘Texas Chain-saw Massacre,’ you get more than a mile or two off the main road in America and you can have some pretty serious issues.”
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